President Hugo Chavez's administration is seeking to discredit an ex-Supreme Court judge turned DEA informant. But there are good reasons to believe he may well turn out to be the DEA's star witness on organized crime and its tentacles into the Venezuelan government.
"We still haven't realized that organized crime has established itself in Venezuela at a high level of government," former head of anti-drug agency CONACUID Mildred Camero told El Universal. Camero spoke with the newspaper about recent allegations made by Eladio Aponte (pictured), a former Supreme Court judge who is now reportedly the highest level official in President Hugo Chavez's government to become an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). After being dismissed from his post for alleged links to a prominent drug trafficker on March 20, Aponte left Venezuela for Costa Rica, then was flown out of Central America on a DEA-chartered flight.
Camero said that the allegations made by Aponte during a recent TV interview -- including his assertion that the Chavez government frequently instructs judges on how to rule on cases, including those related to drug trafficking -- are only the "partial truth" of everything he must really know. "He must have evidence of something because nobody dares to contact the DEA, and they don't move a plane for someone who doesn't have concrete evidence," she said. "It must be something serious."
During an interview recorded April 18 with a Miami-based TV station, Aponte said that he only recalled manipulating one drug case, involving a lieutenant arrested while transporting a shipment of cocaine. Various top military officials called Aponte and told him to be lenient, the judge said. He claimed that the calls included one placed from the Office of the Presidency, and another one from Henry Rangel, the current Defense Minister whom the US Treasury Department has designated a significant drug trafficker.
The Chavez administration has argued that Aponte is a corrupt and dishonest judge who openly admitted to manipulating cases, and his allegations are therefore inherently untrustworthy. The President dismissed him as a "delinquent," while the Foreign Minister complained he had "sold his soul to the DEA" in order to smear the Chavez government.
Aponte is also discredited by the fact that he is charged of collaborating with Venezuela's most notorious drug trafficker, Walid Makled, government officials have said. Aponte was dismissed from the Supreme Court after he was accused of providing Makled with government ID. Makled has since said that he paid the judge about $70,000 a month for favors, and for acting as his "business associate" for an airline believed to smuggle tons of cocaine out of Venezuela.
The Chavez administration has also tried to discredit Aponte by painting him as a resentful former ally of the government, who is now eager to pick a political fight. Aponte certainly came off as embittered during his TV interview, stating that his reasons for speaking out now include, "I was unjustly betrayed. I was unjustly humiliated. I was unjustly manipulated."
But as former drug czar Camero pointed out to El Universal, it is unlikely that the DEA would have sent a chartered flight to pick up Aponte from Costa Rica, if he did not have some kind of very concrete evidence that could back up his charges. Makled's allegations also strengthen Aponte's credibility: if the two truly enjoyed such a close relationship, then Aponte may posses an insider's knowledge of Makled's drug trafficking network, and the top level military officials allegedly involved, a group unofficially known as the "Cartel of the Suns."
According to analysis blog Caracas Gringo, Aponte began accumulating evidence of the government's criminal activities after·Makled fled to Colombia in 2010, "copying documents, downloading files, and gradually building a large data base of specific unconstitutional and criminal acts committed by Chavez and his top associates." The blog adds that Aponte met with the DEA and the FBI, asking for special protection in exchange for handing over his intelligence, but the agencies were slow to offer him a deal. After Aponte fled from Venezuela, the DEA's interest was again piqued, and they agreed to fly him out of Costa Rica for a debriefing, the blog reports.
The essence of Aponte's allegations -- especially those concerning the significant role played by some elements of the Venezuelan military in protecting and moving cocaine shipments -- are hardly revelatory. Such allegations have been floated by US, Colombian, and Venezuelan officials for years, including Camero. She told El Universal that while acting as head of CONACUID, she began receiving intelligence reports from British and US agencies on Makled's drug trafficking activities as early as 2003, as well as his relationships with high-level government officials. While she sent warning to the President's office, no action was taken, she says. She has also previously said that Chavez had direct knowledge of Makled's ties to the military, but did nothing.
But if the gist of Aponte's claims are already well known, what may be truly extraordinary about his allegations is the hard evidence he reportedly possesses. According to Spanish online newspaper ABC, Aponte reportedly handed US authorities a letter, dated from 2007 and addressed to President Chavez, in which the former minister of defense asserts that there is enough evidence to link the current defense minister, General Henry Rangel, to the cocaine trade. The letter reportedly asserts that Rangel would be the primary defendent in a case involving 2.2 tons of cocaine supplied by Colombian rebel group the FARC, which he guarded in a military base. The letter suggests that Rangel be investigated and his assets audited; instead, three years after the letter is dated, Rangel was promoted to General-in-Chief and then Defense Minister.
As Camero has suggested, Aponte's public allegations are likely just the tip of the iceberg. As much as government officials may argue that the judge is corrupt, unethical, and eager to bad-mouth the Chavez administration in revenge for his dismisal, the fact remains that the DEA is not interested in Aponte because he is a judge with a clean record. The more evidence that emerges of Aponte's ties to Makled and his immersion in the corrupt backrooms of power, the more this may actually increase his credibility as a witness.